The Dominican friar, Blessed Humbert of Romans O.P. once said "First the bow is bent in study, then the arrow is released in preaching..." These are the sermons and reflections of fr. Lawrence Lew O.P., a Friar Preacher (Dominican), illustrated with some of his photographs.
Living in windy Edinburgh, I have been amazed at how the wind suddenly picks up, and comes rushing across the Meadows. From our priory above here we can both hear the roar of the wind, and see the undulating waves of the trees. In its power and unexpectedness, this wind is rather awesome, and I recall on one occasion saying: “the Spirit is active again today”. For, like the wind, the Holy Spirit is awesome, powerful, and can be rather unexpected in what he inspires. And, of course, in Hebrew and in Greek, one word is used for both ‘wind’ and ‘spirit’: ruah in Hebrew, and pneuma in Greek, so that we have a delightful play of words so that we can say: “the wind blows where it wills…”, and at the same time understand it as “the Spirit blows where it wills…”
But I don’t think that Jesus intends primarily to say that the Spirit is like the wind. Rather, his primary purpose is to answer Nicodemus’ question about how one can be born again, and Nicodemus has understood rebirth in a physical manner. So, Jesus points out that the rebirth he speaks of is invisible; it is spiritual. And, like the wind, our spiritual birth is also invisible. But even though this is mysterious and invisible, we can also, as with the wind, feel the effects of being born again in the Spirit.
St Augustine calls these past Octave days of Easter “days of pardon and mercy”. For when the risen Lord appears to his disciples gathered as a group for the first time, he immediately offers them his forgiveness, mercy, and reconciliation. And this is summed up in the phrase, “Peace be with you”. For peace is the first gift of Easter. Not peace in the sense of the absence of military conflict, as such, but something of greater cosmic significance. The peace the risen Christ speaks of is primarily the reconciliation between sinful humanity and God; it is God’s loving mercy and his forgiveness.
And this reconciliation brought about by Christ’s death and resurrection, by his obedience and loving self-offering, effects a new creation. Like the first (old) creation, God accomplishes the new through his Word and the Holy Spirit. So, on that Easter evening, “the first day of the week”, the incarnate Word speaks the new creation into being, breathing forth the Holy Spirit, and the whole universe is renewed through being reconciled to God. Indeed, God’s Spirit of Love, is, as St Augustine says, “its very self the forgiveness of sins”. So, when Christ gives the Spirit to his disciples, and thus, pours his love into their hearts, he is forgiving them their sins, giving them his peace, and hence, bringing about his new creation – a creation in which God’s own love and peace is given to humanity, and dwells in their hearts; a creation in which we are offered God’s mercy and friendship. This is what we mean by the life of grace, which is initiated in every Christian by the sacrament of baptism.
Christ is the divine Logos made Man. And that Greek word ‘logos’ can mean ‘Word’, as it is often translated, but it is also rich in other meanings related to words, such as speech, discourse, and reason. So, when Isaiah 1:18 is translated as “Come now, let us reason together”, we find this same Greek root ‘logos’ being used in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible. But equally, the sentence could be translated as “Come now, let us dialogue”.
This verbal relationship helps us to see that in sending the divine Logos to become flesh, and to unite our human nature to his divine nature, God enters into dialogue with humanity. And as with any good dialogue, there is a two-way learning process. Christ learns from our sinful world just what is the nature of sin, and how humanity has been wounded by sin so that he can save us from it. As St Paul says: “For our sake [God] made him [Christ] to be sin who knew no sin”. Christ learns the depths to which humanity sinks when he is raised up on the Cross, for the response of our sinful world to pure Love is violence, hatred, and death. But through that Cross which Christ freely endures for our sake, we are saved from our sins. So that the Word that is spoken to us, in Christ Crucified, is of God’s grace and forgiveness: “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall become like wool” (Isa 1:18b). For we have been washed and made clean not by our own efforts but by Christ’s, who won for us our salvation and our freedom from sin through his sacrifice on the Cross.
Occasionally I’ve had to hang things on the wall using a nail and hammer. And I’m not particularly good at this… Imagine me trying to hammer a nail into the wall, and I find the wall is somewhat unyielding, and my aim slips. So, I make a small indentation below the point that I wanted. I’ve missed the mark, and in fact, I find that I’ve made an indentation in a softer part of the plaster. So, I keep hitting that point, deciding to settle for that lower position instead. The picture, when it’s hung here, isn’t quite where it should be, but I convince myself it’s fine. And in fact, if I’m to live with myself and my weakness, I soon convince myself that it’s what I wanted in the first place, and indeed, everyone else should think so too.
I use this to illustrate how sin affects us as individuals, and also its effect on society. Sin is missing the mark, and when we find that the good and true is a little hard, somewhat unyielding, our aim slips. Instead of persevering, and finding the right tools to hit the hard spot, we may take the easier way, and persist in missing the mark. So, we persist in sin. And then we soon convince ourselves that perhaps that is the best way forward anyway – there’s no such thing as the right place to hang the picture, or no better way of behaving, and so on. So, truth is relativized, such that I become the sole arbiter of right and wrong. And anyone who disagrees has to be convinced otherwise, or silenced.
“Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful”. And just how is the Father merciful and compassionate towards us? Through the Cross. In the sign of Christ Crucified, we see, and we experience God’s mercy. For Christ is the good measure of God’s generous, superabundant, self-giving love, and God’s tender mercy. And it is Jesus who was unjustly judged by Pilate, and condemned by the people. He endured the judgment of the kangaroo court, and the condemnation of the mob with patience, humility, and courage. Even when Jesus was ‘pressed down’ under the immense pressure of Man’s sin and injustice, he endured in silence. As Isaiah said: “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth (Isa 53:7). And when the Lord did open his mouth, it was not to judge or condemn the world, but to say: “Father, forgive them”.
So, Jesus, crucified and dying for us, is the sign of God’s mercy and forgiveness, a sign of his generous and sacrificial love. “And by his wounds we have been healed” (1 Peter 2:24). Each day, our own sins, and the sins of the world injures us. It’s understandable when we’re hurt or treated badly to react with anger, indignation, or even hatred. It’s tempting to judge and condemn those who trespass against us, and we might well find ways to justify this, and nurse the grunge, and find it hard to forgive. But none of this heals our wounds. Only the Cross, and the wounds of the Crucified One heals us of what sin inflicts on us.
Mountaineering is a transcendent experience. On a human level, we transcend the limitation of our fears, and discover the tenacity of the human spirit. As Edmund Hillary put it, “It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.” But mountains have also long had a religious significance and have been regarded as places where God is encountered. From mountaintops, God reveals to Man that his human limitations and mortal fears can be transcended, and Man discovers the divine heights to which the human spirit can soar.
For what every human heart longs for is to see God, but no one can see God’s face and live (cf. Ex 33:20). So, the closest the prophets and patriarchs could come to transcending this human limitation was to climb mountains, where God allowed them a glimpse of his glory. We, too, must be mountaineers if we’re to see God, and today’s Lenten readings show us how. With God’s grace, we are enabled to conquer something in ourselves as we climb each peak, so that, from each of these mountaintops, we can see something of God.